Why have I been reluctant to write about Dresden, which I visited ten months ago? The Florence on the Elbe is the awe-inspiring beautiful city of my paternal ancestors and a major player in World War II. Dresden’s place in 20th century history, however, raises a moral dilemma: Were the Allies just in firebombing and destroying the city, obliterating historic architecture and museums, and most tragically, killing thousands of civilians as well as the Nazis?
A MORAL DILEMMA
My writer’s block comes from not knowing how to get my head around that moral dilemma. Former RAF Warrant Officer, Harry Irons, reported that he was one of the bombers who dropped over 3900 tons of explosives on the city; his guilt haunted him for years. The issue is so complex, however, that no one even knows the exact number killed. In 2009, the History Channel reported that between 35,000 and 135,000 people perished. More current sources, including a BBC report on the 70th anniversary of Dresden’s destruction, state that the number was 25,000. Even if the lower number is correct, thousands died, mainly civilians. Was the attack a moral one?
JUSTIFICATION FOR THE KILLINGS
Justification for the attack, Peter Rowe of the San Diego Union Tribune explains, is based on the following two points:
- “Factories in this Nazi stronghold produced gun sights, bomb fuses, and poison gas.”
- Dresden was a “railway hub that sped Wehrmacht troops to combat and Jews to death camps.”
Where are railroad yards? They are in the middle of cities, so bombing Dresden meant killing civilians. The Allies, according to the History Channel, not only wanted to disrupt communications, they also believed it was imperative to “terror[ize] the German population,” thus “forcing an early surrender.”
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
Critics argue that the February 13, 1945, attack came at the end of the war when the Allies were the wrestlers on top ready to pin their savage opponents to the mat; thus, the bombing was unnecessary. Rowe points out that argument is specious since the “aircrews, had no advance word of when peace would arrive” with Germany surrendering in May and Japan in August. The History Channel also supports critics’ views that while “no German city remained isolated from Hitler’s war machine, Dresden’s contribution to the war effort was minimal compared with other German cities.”
The truth still remains, however, that the Nazis were the first to firebomb cities; Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Coventry, and other cities were all victims. Their vampire-like thirst for the blood of innocents was insatiable. Their extermination of the Jews and other populations was barbarous and incomprehensible. According to Dante’s Inferno, Hitler and his Nazi minions are incarcerated in Hell’s Circle 7, Ring 1, where those who wage war against their neighbors are immersed forever in a river of boiling blood and fire. How appropriate.
Whether Dresden’s demise was necessary to topple the devil’s denizens will continue to be debated. Harry Irons, mentioned above, said he has made peace with his conscience after finally visiting Auschwitz a few years ago and realizing that the inhumanity there could have been brought to England. Many still have no definitive answer for this moral dilemma.
AN ANSWER FOR WRITER’S BLOCK
I do have an answer for writer’s block, one I should have heeded months ago: just start writing. I also have advice for tourists to Dresden: realize that you are walking on holy ground. The city was re-built over the burned dead. All were not guilty. Some were innocents trapped in Hitler’s evil web.
THE FRAUENKIRCHE RISES AGAIN
Do go, however, to Dresden which is now re-built and re-stored to its former beauty. There you will see the Frauenkirche, the 18th century Baroque Church of Our Lady, Dresden’s symbol of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. This building lay in a nest of ruins for 50 years before it rose up and flew over Dresden’s skyline again. The rubble was left as a war memorial until 1989 when private citizens in Germany and abroad started an action group to raise funds for the church’s resurrection. The project was an ecumenical one. In fact, the son of one of the pilots who dropped the deadly bombs created the gold cross on top of the church’s bell tower; the English city of Coventry donated the cross.
THE SYMBOLIC BLACK STONES
The Frauenkirche today is a testament to modern technology. The architects and builders were able to construct the building using burnt stones from the rubble. The result is an intricate jig saw puzzle of a project where the dark original stones pepper the light-colored modern stones.
The church’s website eloquently explains the effect of using the original stones: “The dark colouring of the old stones and the dimensional differences in the joint areas between the new and old masonry resemble the scars of healed wounds. In this way, the Frauenkirche will testify to the history of its destruction in the future too. At the same time, however, it is testimony to the overcoming of enmity and a sign of hope and reconciliation.” The building today is a testament to humankind’s belief that good will always overcome evil.
OTHER RECONSTRUCTED SITES
The Frauenkirche is not a lone Phoenix; there is a flock of them since most of the city was obliterated. History Today reports that 27 of Dresden’s churches were either destroyed or severely damaged, including the Catholic Hofkirche, the Court Church. The Hofkirche had 12,000 parishioners before the raid; afterwards, there were only 500 who survived.
Another notable resurrected building is the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, the Kunstverein. Its iconic glass dome is called the “Lemon Squeezer” because of its shape.
Another risen Phoenix is the 18th century Baroque masterpiece, the Zwinger, which held the electoral art galleries and library, showcased the court’s festivities, and displayed a garden and an orangery in its courtyard.
OLD MASTERS PICTURE GALLERY
In the 19th century, one side of the Zwinger’s courtyard was closed, and the Semper Building was built to house then, as today, the prestigious Old Masters Picture Gallery. Among its many well-known masterpieces, the most revered is arguably Raphael’s The Sistine Madonna.
THE ROYAL CABINET OF MATHEMATICS AND PHYSICAL INSTRUMENTS
Also at the Zwinger is the Royal Cabinet of Mathematics and Physical Instruments, a museum devoted to the display of scientific pieces from the 16th to the 19th centuries. There are clocks, maps, globes, telescopes, and other mechanical gadgets that shaped the world of yore, making it the world of today. Clocks run from the fanciful . . .
to the elaborate: Eberhard Baldewein’s Astronomical Clock from the late 1500s.
Mythical creatures snake around globes . . .
while maps chart the known world of the time.
THE PORCELAIN MUSEUM
The art gallery and science museum hold wonders, but the most delightful museum to me is the Porcelain Museum. Who knew that hard china could elicit such warm feelings? The story goes that Augustus the Strong locked his apothecary in a laboratory until he could turn lead into gold, which he failed to do. He did, however, discover how to make white porcelain. (The Japanese had kept their process a secret.) Augustus loved this porcelain passionately, and we see his glorious collection today–a fanciful gathering of Meissen animals, birds, and flowers alongside inspirational Japanese and Chinese pieces.
Walking down the museum’s main corridor, I first noticed the artistic arrangement of Asian pieces from the 17th and 18th centuries.
When I reached the end of the hall, however, and turned the corner, I let out a gasp of delight. Perched on Chinese-style baldachins were life-sized white porcelain animals.
I quickly rushed forward to get a closer look, realizing that the animals had distinct personalities: proud, fierce, sedate, and so on.
I walked slowly around the display until I found my favorite. All mothers can remember days like this one.
Other white critters lined the wall’s edges as shown in the mirror below. Overall. the room reflected an artistic elegance that was sophisticated and playful at the same time.
The artistry spilled out of the zoo and into the garden.
In the piece below, the animal world and the natural world co-exist with both humans and the gods. Augustus the Strong’s apothecary may not have made gold, but he left a new art form, one whose beauty has not diminished over the centuries.
DRESDEN IS A BEAUTY
Dresden’s beauty has also not diminished over time, thanks to the dedication of all of those who helped in her reconstruction–both financially and physically. While her history may be tragic and still fuels the discussion about a moral dilemma, Dresden is not an old lady wearing a sad face and tattered garments. Instead, through her rebirth, she is a modern gal, proudly wearing her hopeful cloak of reconciliation. She deserves a visit.